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Small victories buoy battle against HIV

Inevitably when I share my line of work with someone, two things occur. First, there's an awkward moment of silence. Then comes the awkward comment, "Oh, that sounds like an interesting job."

So what is it that I do that causes people to break out in a cold sweat and look for the nearest exit? I work as a counselor for people infected with HIV.

I have been involved in this field for about a year and a half now, and in this time there have been moments of joy and there have been moments of sadness and discouragement.

The uplifting moments come after you have been working for months to encourage someone to develop better nutritional habits, or to adhere to a medication regime, or to consistently make all of their medical appointments, and they finally begin to do it.

The best part comes when they themselves begin to see the positive results of their work and are motivated to do more.

This is one of the reasons I love my work -- and please note, I said work, not job. A job is something you do every day to pay the bills, while your work is something you are passionate about and the pay is one of the benefits.

The moments of tragedy up to this point have been few, thank God, but even these have made profound impact in my life.

In the first, the brilliant sunshine streaming into my car windows could not remove the cloud of dark despair that clung to my heart. I sat in the hospital parking lot for what seemed to be an hour, weeping over the visit I had just made to my friend.

I could not understand it. Just a few weeks before, he had attended the Pride Parade. He was an articulate and knowledgeable speaker, funny and sensitive, a wonderful person to be around. Now he lay in his hospital bed, emaciated and too weak even to move his legs without assistance.

This was my first exposure to someone battling HIV. And battle he did. He recovered enough to leave the hospital and to even go back to work. He fought every step of the way.

He came to work even when it took him 10 minutes to walk up a flight of stairs. He fought even when he could barely walk 100 feet without losing his breath. He fought even when he could not open the door of a car without assistance. In spite of all his fighting, he eventually lost the war.

Since that time I have sat in another parking lot weeping for another person I had just left in his hospital room. He moves in and out of consciousness, most of the time unconscious. His battle scars are different, the virus attacks him in other ways.

The picture that is seared into my mind is the look of fear in his eyes, a fear I cannot do anything about. I ask if I can pray for him, he nods his head. I pray. He then drifts off into a short respite of sleep, a few moments' reprieve from the battle.

This is the part of my work that I hate the most, but it is also the part that motivates me the most to stay in the fight. To do what I can do to help those infected with HIV live and not just exist. To help them see that while they are on the front line, there are those beside them who want to see them win.

I believe some day the war will be won, but it is not won yet. That is why I choose to continue to fight.

Mark Schnitzer, a counselor from West Seneca, is committed to helping people with HIV live their lives to the fullest.

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